The eyes are often referred to as the “windows to the soul” and they play a key part in face-to-face communication. They can create a powerful connection between the speaker and listener. Eye contact is one of the critical components of non-verbal communication and it carries several subtle rules of engagement. The presence or lack of eye contact can communicate dominance, submission, honesty, interest, passion, respect, or even hostility. It also shows we are an active listener.
Various cultures place different degrees of importance on whether or not to maintain eye contact, and what it may convey. In American culture, eye contact is essential to convey honesty, sincerity, and confidence. On the other hand, in some cultures, e.g., China, India, the Philippines, to name a few, a downward gaze shows respect to elders or authority figures. A Filipino student reported that he was reprimanded at home when he made eye contact with his father; yet, in at school, he was criticized by his teacher for not looking at her when she spoke. An Indian physician who is currently practicing medicine in the USA has learned that he must use eye contact with his patients, regardless of their age or status; this is not consistent with his rules of eye contact in India.
We must be careful to use eye contact appropriately.
- Too much eye contact results in staring which can become awkward and may be interpreted as threatening or hostile.
- Too little eye contact or looking away may be seen as lack of confidence or honesty.
- Fluttering eyes or frequent blinking may appear to convey nervousness or lack of confidence.
- Gazing upward to the left can be interpreted as visually recalling information or upward to the right as constructing information (according to neurolinguistic programming theory)
- When the chin is down and one looks upward, we interpret this as submissive; chin up with the eyes looking downward is seen as dominant.
In networking, job interviews, or social situations, eye contact can reveal more than you desire. Visually searching the room as your conversational partner is speaking will certainly communicate your lack of interest or desire to find someone more interesting. Glancing at your watch can have the same effect. When speaking to a group, many people attempt to make eye contact with several different people, but may make the mistake of darting their eyes too quickly. As a result, eye contact is made with no one at all. When using notes, if you speak while looking down at the notes, you will lose your connection with the audience. Instead, glance down, and then look up as you speak.
As a rule of thumb, maintain eye contact for four to six seconds. Break the contact occasionally by looking away as you are pausing. Look at your conversational partner as you speak and as they speak to you. If actual eye contact is very difficult for you, look at the bridge of their nose between their eyes. If you are speaking to a large audience, alternate your gaze to different parts of the audience (left, center, right) and speak to the people, not the wall at the back of the room.
Remember to smile; this changes your eyes in a positive way. Ask yourself if you know the color of your conversational partner’s eyes. If not, chances are you were not maintaining proper eye contact.